Sitting in the Old Duke, enjoying a pint the day before his 'second home'-coming gig at the Louisiana, Pete Roe piques my curiosity when he turns mid-conversation to his floor-rested satchel. Without breaking conversation, he fishes out a nail file and goes to work on his surprisingly refined talons. It doesn’t sit with me that the auteur of truly laid-back folk wanderings would take on a level of beauty maintenance more Beyoncé Knowles than Bob Dylan. Did I get the wrong pub? Have I begun an impromptu interview with an innocent Peter Rose?
Such doubts and professional fears dissolve the following day, as the same scruffy-but-preened figure finds the step-up to the stage through the melee of the Louisiana’s capacity crowd. It has been a weekend of World Cup excess and sweltering heat, and the audience are a flustered, excitable bunch; it takes nearly a whole minute and several school-ground shushes until Pete and his musical pals are given the suitable silence to kick-off proceedings. He assumes stage centre and with full attention attained, pulls sound from his plectrum.
Although admirably open and spirited at first, during the slow course of our ciders in the Old Duke, Pete engages me further with his musical history to date. Having studied Engineering at Bristol University, he found more interest in the local music scene. He was eventually “nagged into performing” by a few of the musical acts who provided a nocturnal escape from his increasingly repellent studies. The Old Duke transpires to be an apt place to discuss his background; it was here chiefly that he contracted the fever for performance. Bristol became him it seems.
Towards the end of the set, Pete’s ease of surroundings is evident as he addresses the crowd before a tune. “This is an old song. Every other place I’ve felt a wally for saying that. Not here, because I know most of you!”
It could go some way to explaining the packed house; the Louisiana isn’t exactly arena-size and the genuinely nice Pete seems cast from that Dave Grohl mould of easy amiability. What group of pals wouldn’t come along and support him?
The Louisiana is a special venue. It isn’t wholly indefinable as to why it is special, but it is tricky. For one, it’s small. Yes, small indicates ‘intimate’ and that is an often-touted positive of a venue. But one wouldn’t call the White Stripes a band suited to intimate gigs, and yet they rocked this place out during their epic Elephant tour. So that doesn’t explain it. Neither is it glamorous or comfortable; there isn’t a decent air-con to speak of and the walls are rendered un-leanable by necessary drinks shelving. So? Well, it is dark. And windowless. No, really. In essentially resembling a cave, albeit one with whitewashed walls, ‘the Louie’ facilitates escapism with ease. Tonight, Pete Roe takes us to other places. Beaches, dusty countryside lanes and a cottage in Lancashire are all conjured up on the Louisiana’s blank canvas.
Pete’s ensemble of core band (not forgetting scene-stealing fiddler Jonathan Pearce) create a sound that varies over the night, but is best pinned down as Southern Belt country-and-western. An upbeat tempo and summer mood does pervade throughout: “it's a fine time to go outside, a fine time to travel to the sea”, suggests Pete. In this heat, half the crowd seem tempted to take heed of the advice. But of course they don’t, what with the great knees-up they’re enjoying. It takes two weeks and a sun-baked Glastonbury Festival until I see a collection of smiles like those on Pete’s night.
He is an engaging host and fun drinking partner, a modern act perfectly set for the emerging nu folk scene, an emerald-eyed bohemian destined for music-mag posters; and despite all this Pete is, well, old-school. You’ve already read that he employs the word ‘wally’ without any sense of irony; try adding ‘gosh’, ‘jolly’ and ‘whoops’ to the repertoire. He is simply as pleasantly English as they come. Marry that with a soft voice and sweetly tuned melodies, and Pete Roe is one folk act the public will surely embrace. He has the musical chops to back it too. His vocals are light but delivered with vigour and intent, his arrangements are catchy but avoid feeling too ‘tight’ and thus chart-orientated; and the cheerful mood never seems naive or sickly; even when he is recounting the homely Lancastrian folk song ‘A Man like thee’.
If tonight’s taster is anything to go by, his new album ‘The Merry-Go Round’ will evoke spring blossom blown towards the coast, down the cliffside road to a joyful new adventure. It is a summery treat to rival strawberries and cream. Pete would surely enjoy them too.